Wednesday, February 16, 2011

One Color and One Sex in Philosophy

I just got an announcement in my inbox for a new Intro to Philosophy text. This one is written in a way that makes liberal use of contemporary films so that students
"will not only discover a new relevance to their own lives, but will dissect the key readings with a perspective they were previously unaware of."
One wonders if the book is supposed to be relevant to women students, too. Out of 42 authors, the majority of them 20th- and 21st-century authors, only 2 are women. That's less than 5%! Not only is that far lower than the percentage of Intro to Philosophy students who are women, it's lower even than the still-very-low estimate of women teaching philosophy.

The text is called "Introduction to Philosophy in Black, White, and Color" but--ahem--the only color I see is White.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Access to Power

Here's one of those questions on which my intuitions pull in opposing directions.

How important is it for us in academia to have informal access to folks in positions of authority? And if informal access to people in power is a good thing--either for the people who get the access or those in the positions of authority, then how important is it that the access be fair, especially given that people in positions of authority have very real, burdensome demands on their time?

Here are some reasons to support informal access:
1. In organizations and communities with democratic elements, informal meetings across levels of hierarchy strengthens the impression of equality.
2. Those in power can lose touch with "regular folks," and formal means of access deliver messages that are funneled along only certain lines, often adversarial ones. Say there is some sort of structural problem that could lead to a grievance, isn't it much better for someone in a position of power to hear about the potential problem before it becomes serious? Plus, informal access is more likely to create positive relationships rather than adversarial relationships.
3. If people in a community or organization feel close to figures of authority, perhaps they are more likely to be supportive of the community or organization in general.

But here's the concern. Genuinely informal, causal, social interactions are more likely to happen in social circles that are coincident with the leader's own social milieu, but that can serve to entrench the interests of that social milieu while doing nothing to create access for others.

Here are some examples, and I'm genuinely conflicted about most of these:

1. The dean's office runs a series of breakfasts. They are open for anyone on faculty or staff to stop by and chat or share ideas and problems. However, they take place while some people are teaching and are always held at the same time.

2. A provost holds frequent private parties at his home. Invitations are offered liberally and generously. But there is a group of regular invitees, and these become known around campus as the provost's inner circle.

3. A provost with a very busy schedule creatively schedules his downtime as a chance for students, faculty, or staff to chat with him informally. This regular 3-mile running event is called "Pace the Provost." He has a 20:34 5K time.

4. A dean holds informal "meeting hours" at a local pub, after hours. Some untenured faculty make it their business to attend, figuring that sharing beers with the dean is a form of insurance.

What do you think of these cases?
I don't see a problem with #1. Presumably if the dean's office is reaching out, they'd be open to individuals setting up meetings. #2 is slightly more problematic. However, public figures still have private lives. And it seems to me like a provost is actually rather removed from decisions that will affect faculty members as individuals (except for tenure decisions).

#3 raises a different problem. On the one hand, it's very creative, and, as a runner myself, it sounds fun. But then, it creates access for certain people (runners, more likely men than women) and not others (if you're fat or blew out your knees, too bad).

#4 creates the most conflict between my intuitions. On the one hand, extending business conversations in more comfortable surroundings sounds absolutely unobjectionable. On the other hand, of these 4 situations, this one seems the most likely to result in someone receiving favorable treatment--not as a result of conscious favoritism, necessarily, but as a result of having had the chance to develop regular old familiarity and trust.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Books with nice covers and nice pages

Don't judge a book by its cover?

Why not?

The Modern Library hardbacks on my shelf have such lovely brass-colored dust jackets with black-and-white images, nice firm cloth bindings, and smooth, impossibly thin pages which never seem to yellow. Are they still being published? I just floated around the Random House site, here, and only found paperbacks. Even brand new, the hardcovers had prices only a hair above the competitors' paperbacks. I loved them!

I'm teaching Modern Philosophy in the spring, for the first time in over 10 years. And imagine my shock: E.A. Burtt, The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill is entirely out of print! Strangely, its companion volume, Monroe Beardsley, The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, is not. But that one is available only in paperback.

What's a good solution? What are other folks doing? I ordered The Empiricists instead. But I hate having a mismatched set. And are Locke and Hume not worth reprinting when Spinoza et alia are?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

At C

I'm approaching the end of a term. Just one more week, and I have many students in my upper-level classes who have not turned in work. Major assignments, minor assignments. Some are brilliant when they participate in discussion, but it seems they can't get around to the written comments which make up 35% of the grade. When the students in question are math majors, engineering majors, physics majors...failing to understand numerically how that will affect their grade is not possible.

One of the classes I'm teaching now I haven't taught since 2005. Some reading materials which students found a reasonable challenge 6 years ago now completely stump a significant portion of the class. They don't even attempt the reading. Not to mention that more than one can't read cursive, so how are they getting the notes I write on the board?

Have standards at my university changed in only 6 years?
Is there something unusual about how or why students enrolled in this particular class?
Is there a larger pattern?

The book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska has been getting some attention and does point to a larger, even national, pattern.

From an interview with Salon:
Fifty percent of the kids in a typical semester say they haven't taken a single course where they've been asked to write 20 pages over the course of the semester. And 32 percent have not taken a single class the prior semester for which they've been asked to read more than 40 pages per week on average, and in terms of homework, 35 percent of them say they do five or fewer hours per week studying alone.
OK, guilty as charged. In one class I'm requiring students to write over 20 pages but most are coming in far below the expectations I expressed--both in terms of quality and quantity. In the other class, I'm only requiring about 15 pages of writing. Both classes have over 30 students. I think I spend too much time on grading. My students tell me I require more writing than many of my colleagues--particularly those in other liberal arts disciplines. I believe them. Because if they were practicing writing regularly they'd be better at it than they are.

So here's the bind. My colleagues are requiring less work. My students are expecting to do less work. I want to set them tasks which are challenging but possible. And the bar for what is possible falls a little every year. We are stuck in a pattern of decline, and it seems to be a problem of collective action. No one is positioned to make a change without paying a cost.

More from the Salon interview:
There's a longstanding tradition of some students going through college with little asked of them and little learned. Nothing is new about that. However, there is significant evidence out there that something has changed in terms of the academic rigor and student workload.... Full-time college students spend 50 percent less time studying than they did several decades ago. We also know that in terms of grades, students expect to receive higher grades and do receive higher grades in spite of less effort.
Philosophers are surely as much a part of this drift as other disciplines. The book reports that 45% of the students followed in the study (at a wide variety of campuses) failed to progress in developing critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills in their first two years. That's our department, no? Not just us, but we surely play a central role.

It's possible that one of the things to blame is something I love dearly: academic freedom. No one tells me what or how to teach, and I take the responsibility to teach well seriously. But with no one looking, it is all too easy for some of us to slide a lot and all of us to slide a little.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Ernan McMullin

Michael Ruse has written a memorial piece for Ernan McMullin at the Chronicle.

Hearing McMullin speak about the history of the development of early modern philosophy in tandem with modern science was one of the delights of my first year in grad school. I appreciated that it was a good story, well-told. Thinking about science and philosophy as sharing metaphysical commitments which were particular to the Church and to origins in Hellenistic philosophy implicitly presented the thesis that if Church history had been different, the questions and tools available to 17th century science would also have been different. This was consistent with my learning to take a historical and sociological approach to the development of scientific methods and institutions (but in a way that respects, rather than undermines, the intuition that science and philosophy are progressive). That lecture probably reinforced the track I was already starting to follow. In hindsight, much about the talk was probably already obvious to many in the audience, and I know of others who have given more detailed accounts of how scholastic metaphysics affected the development of modern science (Dan Garber, especially), but at the time I was happy to be able to absorb these historical points and to hear them in the form of a fascinating narrative.

I've also found his talk on "Values in Science" to be provocative at several points and useful for several projects. I just learned from Michael Ruse's piece that it was the PSA presidential address that year--I don't believe it's marked in that way in the printed collection.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

How Do YOUR Clothes Fit?

I love finding an opportunity to bring a gendered insight to bear, even on another feminist.

I assigned Ron Giere's piece "The Feminism Question in the Philosophy of Science" for one of my classes, and I'm enjoying re-reading it. Giere's central point is that just about any current theory of scientific theories allows for the possibility that influences on theory choice may include cultural background beliefs or individual bias.

This is obvious for post-Kuhnian theories. It's less obvious, but still true, for theories which rely on subjective probability (following Richard Jeffrey) because there are no constraints on how individuals assign initial probabilities to theories, and those initial probabilities may be conditioned by all sorts of beliefs. Likewise, for theorists such as Laudan and Lakatos whose historical theories of theory change impose stricter rationality constraints than those implied by Kuhn, there is still the possibility that one theory has become developed enough to be a serious alternative because of its relation to cultural values.

Giere goes on to build up his position of perspectival realism (which he later developed in his book Scientific Perspectivism). While logical positivists, as well as some contemporary realists, look for theories (in the form of statements) to be true representations of the world, Giere's perspectival realism abandons truth as a criterion for judging theories. Indeed, he rejects linguistic statements as representations for something more in line with scientific practice--it is models, not statements, which are representations. Judgments are made not about the turth of statements but about the degree to which scientific models fit the world.

Giere writes
Unlike truth, fit is a more qualitative relationship, as clothes may be said to fit a person more or less well.
I would point out that, for a typical man (other than David Byrne!), we can often quite easily say that his clothes fit more or less well. But for women, we need to know something else. Namely, we need to know what the fashion is this season.

I have a lovely Irish linen blouse, suitable for only dressy occasions, which I bought in the 1990's. According to the size label it should fit, but I'll have to wait for fashions to cycle around to the roomy end of the scale first.

The point is that judgments of truth cause difficulty for realists precisely because they are bivalent, and so realists reach for "approximate" truth (an idea which, in my opinion, does not fly). Being qualitative, fitness accommodates judgments about the degree of precision which is required for different models in different contexts. Nonetheless, one wouldn't expect fashion to be a factor in making judgments of fitness, though the analogy seems to invite this conclusion.

In the end, I'm not sure that Giere would be troubled by it. I'm not. It does seem to be the case that epistemic values vary from one scientific community and historical moment to another, and that epistemic values are an influence on judgments of which theories (or models) are best. Some communities look for simplicity, others look for breadth--either of these are bound to be considerations in making judgments about whether models fit the world.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Gender and Germs

How does feminist philosophy of science make a (muddy) splash?

Shari Clough adds gender insight to the germ hypothesis, and shares the word with an interview on Snappy reasoning!

Shari's abstract:

The hygiene hypothesis offers an explanation for the correlation, well-established in the industrialized nations of North and West, between increased hygiene and sanitation, and increased rates of asthma and allergies. Recent studies have added to the scope of the hypothesis, showing a link between decreased exposure to certain bacteria and parasitic worms, and increased rates of depression and intestinal auto-immune disorders, respectively. What remains less often discussed in the research on these links is that women have higher rates than men of asthma and allergies, as well as many auto-immune disorders, and also depression. The current paper introduces a feminist understanding of gender socialization to the epidemiological and immunological picture.

Photo by katiew.

Beautiful Connections

Tinadot posts a collection of provocative images of neural cells: here.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

What Do You Know?

Wikipedia is asking for more female contributors.
This is important in that it recognizes that, if Wikipedia says something about our cultural worldview, then the perspective of that worldview is skewed if those who write it don't represent the full diversity of interests.

I don't buy the line that it's because women don't use computers as much or in the same ways as men. I think the cause is a more broadly rooted phenomenon--women being less like to recognize their own epistemic authority or to recognize that what they have expertise on counts as knowledge.

We philosophers have a word for this--agnotology, or the epistemology of ignorance. Some sorts of things are deemed worth knowing, and others not; and social practices, some of them gendered, dub people experts. Feminist philosophers have examined how cultural values shape the understanding of what counts as knowledge--including Nancy Tuana, Shannon Sullivan, Lisa Heldke, Nancy McHugh, and Carla Fehr.

Thanks to Zoe for the link!